Although he still insists there is a one percent chance he comes back next season, ironman linebacker London Fletcher seems all but set to retire after a brilliant 16 years in the NFL.
Because he’s been around so long, the average football fan might have forgotten that Fletcher got his start with the St. Louis Rams in 1998 as an undrafted free agent out of John Carroll University. Or that Fletcher left the Rams to sign with the Buffalo Bills in 2002 after the Rams let Fletcher walk in free agency and replaced him with a first-round pick by the name of Robert Thomas.
But Rams fans certainly haven’t forgotten.
Letting Fletcher – the heart of the Rams defense throughout the Greatest Show on Turf era – walk in favor of an unknown commodity in Thomas has to be one of the worst personnel moves in the history of the Rams organization. You could even argue replacing Fletcher with Thomas was one of the worst personnel moves by any NFL team in this millennium.
However, let’s not focus on the fact that Fletcher went on to play a dozen more years after the Rams let him go or that Thomas played in just 84 career games (compared to Fletcher’s 256), with just 42 of those coming for the Rams. Let’s not focus on the fact that Fletcher consistently exceeded expectations everywhere he went during his NFL career and that Thomas did the exact opposite. Let’s not focus on the fact that replacing Fletcher with Thomas was the tip of the iceberg of a bunch of terrible front office decisions to come after the Rams’ 2001 Super Bowl loss to the Patriots.
Instead, let’s keep the focus on London Fletcher, the football player, starting with his rookie season.
As good as the 1999 Rams were, the 1998 Rams were the exact opposite. The ’98 Rams team was a bumbling mess, led by the king of bumbling messes, quarterback Tony Banks. There was not a lot to cheer about during that dismal 4-12 season.
However, one player stood out, especially during home games. He was a very short and stout linebacker that wore number 59, and he played almost exclusively on special teams. In the moments before the Rams would kick the ball off, number 59 would rile up the crowd with ridiculous dances and other gestures designed to pump up the crowd. Then he would fly down the field and usually knock the hell out of at least one person but more often two or three. The person(s) receiving the jarring hit was usually the ball carrier but often could be an opposing blocker or even his own teammate. Either way, we all loved number 59, who went on to win the Rams rookie of the year award.
Eventually, we learned his name: London Fletcher. From John Carroll University. Not only was Fletcher from a Division III football school, he was also just 5’10, undersized for a middle linebacker. You don’t need me to tell you how stacked the odds were against him.
But Fletcher had two things on his side: instincts and energy. He had a nose for the football like no other player I’ve seen and a motor that never quit. The term “motor” has become cliche these days, but Fletcher had a motor.
When Fletcher won the starting middle linebacker job for the Rams in 1999, he immediately became one of the vocal leaders of the defense. Everyone remembers the ’99 Rams for their offense, but their defense was extremely underrated. The Rams only gave up 17.8 points per game and also racked up 29 interceptions, 13 forced fumbles, 57 sacks and seven return touchdowns on their way to a Super Bowl-winning season.
Fletcher continued his impressive play the next two seasons, racking up a total of 196 tackles, 10 sacks, five forced fumbles and six interceptions (stats via profootballreference.com). He somehow got snubbed out of Pro Bowl voting each of those three years as a Rams starter but was named as an alternate all three years. We Rams fans knew better. London Fletcher was one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL, and we were happy to have him on our team.
Then, of course, the Rams failed to give an honest attempt to re-sign him. Fletcher, rightfully, said “screw you” to the Rams front office and signed with the Buffalo Bills. He went on to play five seasons with the Bills before finishing his career with a seven-year stint in Washington.
Because he stuck around so long, Fletcher eventually got his due accolades. After somehow not making a Pro Bowl for his first 11 seasons, he made four straight from 2009 through 2012 and was voted second team All-Pro in 2011 and 2012.
Countless media outlets have featured Fletcher because of his consistently high level of play and impressive longevity*.
*Fletcher amazingly never missed a game in his entire career. That’s a total of 265 games – 256 regular season games and nine postseason games.
Better late than never, I suppose. Have a healthy and happy retirement, London. You’re always welcome back in St. Louis.
Related: Who are the top five hidden gems drafted by the Rams?